An Orthodox monk, who is also a priest, tells the story of how he was out in the city near where he lives one day with a friend who is a Roman Catholic priest.
As they walked through the downtown marketplace, a man approached the monk and asked if he were a priest and would hear his confession. After the unburdened man had left, the Roman Catholic priest said to the monk, “He didn’t ask me to hear his confession. He asked you.”
The reason the man did not ask the Roman Catholic priest to hear his confession, the monk explains, was because he was dressed like everyone else. Wherever he goes, the monk stands out. He dresses in black and wears a cassock and riassa, a large pectoral cross, and a kamilavka with veil. He doesn’t blend in. He doesn’t hide among the crowd. His clerical dress announces to the world that he is a Christian priest ready to serve.
I thought of the monk’s story recently after listening to a homily in which the priest noted how overjoyed he is that he no longer must wear the heavy chasuble he was forced to wear when he was new to the priesthood. The chasuble was so heavy, he said, he felt weighed down. So he rushed through the Sunday Mass so he could strip it off.
The point of his story, he said, was that the Church was weighing down people instead of lifting them up. He never stated exactly what he thought the Church was doing to weigh down people, but it was implicit in his metaphor of the heavy chasuble. In his contemporary view of things, the Church’s traditions are burdensome and weigh down people and the Church needs to strip them off.
The Church, in fact, he said, needs to live in the now and to forget about where we are going. Thinking about where we are going, he said, puts weight on our shoulders. We are a resurrection people, he said, but the Church prevents us from soaring.
I was traveling in Florida, and before I left I had struggled with the question of whether I should pack my cassock and riassa, the skufia that covers my head, the clerical dress I am expected to wear as a Ukrainian Catholic deacon during liturgy when I am not serving.
I was ordained less than a year ago, and I am still getting used to thinking of myself as a deacon. Despite the strange looks from some of the parishioners sitting near me, the priest’s look of discomfort as I approached to receive Holy Communion, I was glad that I had not hidden my vocation. I was not weighed down by my clothing. I was lifted up because I was fulfilling a commitment I had made to Our Lord.
Too many in our Church today seek to strip away tradition. They seek, in fact, to strip away all that makes us Catholic. Our secular society has taken its cue from such Catholics-in-name-only and so has attempted to use the law to force us to accept the immorality it characterizes as just.
While priests sing of the burden of chasubles and Catholic-in-name-only colleges and universities advance the ways of the world, emboldened citizens, some who call themselves Catholic, attack a bishop who seeks to ensure that the teachers at Catholic schools under his jurisdiction teach the true faith.
They often succeed because too often we choose to conform to the world. Unlike the layperson who can primarily display the light of faith in the way he lives, those who have been ordained or who have taken a religious vow can also wear distinct clothing that announces to the world their Catholic faith.
To dress otherwise is to extinguish that light for the poorest of the poor. “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light,” the Lord says. “Let us give everything, offer everything, to the one who gave himself as a ransom and in exchange for us,” St. Gregory of Nazianzus states in his oration “On Pascha and on His Slowness.”
The least a Catholic priest can do for Our Lord is to dress as a priest in public. Dressed and ready to serve, the priest is sure to find endless opportunities to evangelize souls in need in the world.